Gradual Israeli takeover of Palestinian land seems to leave little enough to negotiate
Long-term policy has been to encircle Arab East Jerusalem with Jewish suburbs
A Palestinian boy runs in front of a concrete wall on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Photograph: Reuters
This week’s resumption, after a three-year stalemate, of direct contact between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators is good for optics. But it only happened after renewed US pressure, an EU disengagement with Israeli settlements and Palestinian agreement to drop “preconditions” in return for the release of more than 100 prisoners.
The Palestinians had earlier insisted there couldn’t even be “talks about talks” unless Israel froze its settlement activities in the occupied territories. Instead, the expansion of settlements has continued unabated.
It’s all about maps and “facts on the ground”. For Israel, that’s always been so. Even the UN General Assembly’s decision last November to upgrade Palestine to the status of “non-member observer state” was used as a pretext to intensify settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Describing the UN decision as “a meaningless resolution that won’t change anything on the ground”, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu then announced that 3,000 more settler homes would be built, saying: “We will carry on building in Jerusalem and in all the places that are on the map of Israel’s strategic interests.”
Since 1967, Israeli policy has been to encircle Arab East Jerusalem with Jewish suburbs. These “Ring Neighbourhoods”, originally proposed by Ariel Sharon and usually built on hills, now house nearly 195,000 Israelis. They’re all linked together and to West Jerusalem by a network of bypass roads, some in tunnels.
Violation of international law
More than half of the new 14km Jerusalem light rail line, one of several which are being planned, has been laid in occupied East Jerusalem. The UN Human Rights Council, by 46 votes to 1 (the US), condemned the project as a “clear violation of international law” because it constitutes infrastructure for servicing settlements in occupied territories.
Veolia, the French conglomerate that operates Luas in Dublin, and Alstom, came under pressure from the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign to withdraw from the Jerusalem consortium. Veolia, which denies it is acting under political pressure, has yet to sell out. *
The final piece of the complex planning jigsaw to create a crescent of Israeli settlements around East Jerusalem is a plan for a future settlement, known as “E1”. It would cover some 12sq km of barren hills just north of the main road to Jericho. Plans to develop it were drawn up in 1999 and have been dusted down in retaliation for the UN’s upgrading of Palestine.
B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that monitors abuses in the occupied territories, has warned the scheme would “create a physical and functional barrier between East Jerusalem and the Palestinian population in adjacent West Bank communities for which the city serves as the main metropolitan and religious centre”.
At present, the only building in the area is the Israeli district police headquarters. But B’Tselem pointed out that some 200 million shekels (€40 million) had been spent on roads in the E1 bloc, to facilitate development.
West Bank cut in half
E1 could ultimately be as large as the nearby West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, home to about 40,000 people. And because it would encroach on the only access road open to Palestinians between Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem, and Bethlehem to the south, full implementation of E1 would effectively bisect the most populous area of the West Bank, jeopardising the “two-state solution” that’s favoured even by the US.
In 2011, the Israeli government approved plans for a further 2,610 homes in Giv’at Hamatos, near the Mar Elias monastery, where the Christmas procession to Bethlehem starts every year. This was described by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat as “one of the most damaging settlements” because it would sever the link with Jerusalem.
So what is left for Dr Erakat to negotiate, with Israel taking over Palestinian land year after year? And what will the international community actually do about this, apart from issuing statements describing the E1 plan, in particular, as a fatal blow to what’s left of the chances of securing a two-state solution?
The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank surpassed 350,000 last year, amidst a Palestinian population of 2.4 million. A further 1.5 million Palestinians are crowded into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which Israel evacuated in 2005 but still effectively controls through its six-year-old blockade by land, sea and air.
According to Henry Siegman, a Jewish-American Middle East specialist, Palestinians know how “utterly disingenuous” Netanyahu was when he “pretended” to accept the two-state goal while leading members of his own cabinet are in the Knesset’s Whole Land of Israel caucus, which aims to prevent a Palestinian state in any part of Palestine.
A map titled ‘Israel’s colonisation of East Jerusalem’ is available at nad-plo.org/ userfiles/file/maps/
* This article was amended on Wednesday, August 14th, 2013